By Joan Ordille, DSW, LCSW
Samaritan Bereavement Program Supervisor
The changes we are experiencing related to COVID-19 have produced another layer of grief and uncertainty for those who have recently lost a family member or friend. Grief counselors use the term “loss of the assumptive world” to help clients gain understanding of their experience following a loss. The assumptive world provides a framework for organizing information. It includes our expectations and beliefs about what is true. On an emotional and cognitive level, the assumptive world helps to orient us in the world. It allows us to assume that things will pretty much be the same tomorrow as they are today. The loss of a friend or loved one can unhinge one’s assumptive world, causing anxiety and disruption in one’s life, along with a range of emotional, cognitive, physical and spiritual grief reactions.
Life is like an onion. You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes, you weep. -Carl Sandberg
In this unpredictable time, how does one cope with the pain of personal loss as well as the ongoing disruptions to the assumptive world the COVID-19 virus has unleased? Daily, there are new changes going on related to the COVID-19 pandemic. On some level, this is like peeling an onion. We keep peeling layers of onion skin away, but have a hard time getting to the center— the core of grief and loss, and the place where healing takes place.
For those who have had a recent loss, I want to validate the difficulty of the current situation, I also want to provide some suggestions for getting through it, honoring your loss, and finding a literal and figurative space for yourself in the new reality of your world.
COVID-19 has curtailed funeral and memorial services as we know them. It’s important to find ways to memorialize your loved one and honor your grief publicly and privately. Consider planting a tree or a perennial, donating to a charity in your loved one’s memory or honor, creating an on-line platform for memorialization and communication, or any activity that speaks to you about honoring the person who died. Click here for forty thoughtful and creative memorializing activities>>
For many, social isolation and stay-at-home orders, while inconvenient and limiting, can also be restorative. For those who are grieving, your loss can change your home in ways that can feel empty and unsettling, and reminders of the loss can be everywhere. To help with the changes in your home related to your loss, consider setting up a space to honor, memorialize, and “spend time with” your lost loved one. For example, place some objects, pictures, important memorabilia and transitional objects in a special place that you can go to when you need to feel a closeness to your loved one. In connection with that, make some changes in your home, if and when you are ready, that helps create a zone of comfort just for you.
Consider what grief professionals refer to as the “dual process-model” which suggests that you spend some time being oriented to your loss and some time in loss restoration. Examples of loss orientation activities can include thinking about your loved one, being in a physical space that helps you feel close to your loved one, writing them a letter, reminiscing, and engaging in grief counseling or a support group. Examples of loss restoration activities would include being engaged in your day to day activities, being with friends and family in the moment or getting involved in a favorite personal activity. Recognize that some activities, such as taking care of estate issues, rearranging things in your home and enjoying activities you associate with your loved can be both restorative and orienting. Allow yourself to make choices that allow both loss orientation and loss restoration.
If you are feeling anxious, grounding activities can be helpful. Meditation, yoga, walking, breath-work and other forms of physical exercise can all be good grounding activities. Yoga and meditation have the benefit of calming your nervous system as discussed in this article from Harvard Health Publishing.
If you don’t find those activities helpful or right for you, Megan Devine, author of Its OK That You’re Not OK, has some other good suggestions for anxiety-reducing, grounding activities on her website.
For grief support in South Jersey, contact Samaritan at (856) 596-8550.
Maintain a schedule or develop a new one. Find books that offer daily readings on loss or another topic that speaks to your needs right now. Click here for Samaritan’s reading suggestions >>
Is there is a certain time of day you find particularly difficult? If so, identify a new schedule or ritual for that time of day. For example, one client discussed with me in grief counseling how mornings were hard for her, because she felt alone and lost after her spouse died and she no longer needed to provide his morning care. We discussed how she could find time in the morning to honor her loss, and to fill that time with new activities. She decided to choose from activities like taking a walk, reading a daily reflection, making herself a healthy and comforting breakfast, calling a friend or taking up the next suggestions, journaling.
Journaling can get those difficult to express feelings out of your head and emotional body and onto paper. You don’t have to be a writer to journal, and you don’t need to do it every day. Doodles, drawings and poems are all useful journaling activities. No one else ever has to read it, and a journal can help you to see how you are doing over time. Alan Henry provides some good suggestions and reasons for journaling >>
Take some advice from the 12 step programs. Be aware of when you are hungry, angry, lonely and tired, and respond to your needs in the moment accordingly. Know when you need some nurturing from someone else, and know who the people are that can do that for you. If no one fits that bill, spend time with pets, find an author who speaks to you, listen to comforting music, and plan on enhancing your support system moving forward. Find an on-line support group, and promise yourself you will find a face to face support group when the distancing restrictions are relaxed. Nobody understands what you are going through like others who are also grieving a loss.
Most importantly, be gentle with yourself. While everyone is going through difficulty adjusting to a new reality, those of you who are dealing with the loss of a loved one are carrying an additional layer of loss and disruption to your life, and at your center, the experience of grief. If you just can’t seem to find solace or centering anywhere, reach out for support from a professional. Peeling back the layers of the COVID-19 onion and getting to your core may take some support. The social workers and grief counselors at Samaritan Center for Grief Support are here to support you.
Joan Ordille, DSW, LCSW is the supervisor of the bereavement program at Samaritan’s Center for Grief Support and a part time lecturer for Rutgers University School of Social Work. Joan has extensive experience as a hospice social worker and bereavement counselor, and is seasoned in individual, family and group counseling. Joan is a certified yoga instructor and facilitates the Healing Your Heart-Yoga and Meditation for Grief Support Group. Contemplative practice and phenomenology inform her work.
Rando, T. (1993). Treatment of Complicated Mourning. Champaign, IL. Research Press.
Strobe. M. & Schut, H. (1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: rationale and description. Death Studies, 23.